Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Research Tools

Even if no one ever reads this blog, I've learned quite a bit about research tools that are available to anyone interested in learning about the past. The process is its own reward, because I get to live out my own little episode of PBS's "History Detectives". My most important discovery was that Google does not have all the answers: good old-fashioned leg work is still an important part of research, even in the 21st century.

The following resources have been very useful in my quest:

Deeds Library, Virginia Beach Circuit Court
Virginia Beach Municipal Center
Building 10, 3rd Floor

Like a scene from Indiana Jones, or Lord of the Rings -- pulling big dusty books off of shelves, turning thick, oversized pages that have yellowed over the years, and reading about people who long ago passed from this world to the next ... very, very cool.

The Deeds Library is open to the public; so as long as you are not packing a weapon or a cell phone (or anything not permitted in a court building) you can walk right in and start pulling books off shelves. Deeds from the last 100 years generally reference the deed that preceeded it, making it easy to follow a title for a particular piece of land through history. The deeds will usually include specific descriptions of the property, and/or reference a plat map of the property (also available in the deeds library). You can pay $.50 per page to obtain a copy of a deed -- most deeds are two or three pages long.

There are three difficulties I experienced with older deeds: (1) before about 1911, deeds were handwritten instead of typed. A handwritten deed that has been photocopied multiple times over the last hundred years does become more difficult to read; (2) older deeds tended to use transitory items as boundary markers: for example, "the oak tree at the back of the lot" or "the rock by the road" or my personal favorite, "to the Smith property line". Those property markers have long since disappeared, making it very difficult to identify property boundaries, or in some cases, which piece of property is being referred to; and (3) old deeds don't refer to previous deeds, so it is very difficult to track a deed history further back. This is why my Woodstock history only goes back to 1877: I have several deeds from Edward Herbert, but I canot identify which deed refers to which piece of property.

Still, you can feel the history in the air in this place. Much fun.

Real Estate Assessor's Office Website

In order to know which deed book or microfilm to start with, you'll need to visit the Real Estate Assessor's Office website:

You type in an address, and the current real-estate information on that property is made available to you. The "Parcel" page tells you the deed book and page number (or, a "document number" if your deed is more recent) and also the map book and page number for your plat map. Once you've located the most recent deed, you can find the previous deed number, pull that deed, find the next previous deed number, and so forth, as far back as the deed history will permit.

There are other interesting sections to this website. For example, under IMPROVEMENTS/VIEW DETAIL, I discovered that parts of my house are actually additions to the original structure. Under "SALES DISCLOSURE" you can find out what a house sold for recently, and under "VALUE HISTORY" you can determine what the city assessment has been for the last few years.

Virginia Beach Central Library

News Flash: the world wide web has not rendered brick-and-mortar libraries irrelevant. Far from it! I've learned to love several of the following resources only available through the Central Library. They are all free, as long as you have a library card:


Once I obtained a list of names from deed records, I entered them into to see what I could find. In the early stages of my research, I tried the two week free trial from home, but that ran out pretty quickly (well, in two weeks to be exact). The Central Library has a somewhat limited edition of, but it has still proven extremely useful. From the names on the deed records I was able to obtain some biographical information about the individuals, but also obtain names of descendants. On several occasions I was able to locate living relatives of people from Woodstock history and then write them letters. I've even received a few replies.

2) America's Obituaries & Death Notices

Sometimes the information obtained through is a bit vague -- there can be several individuals with the same name in the same area at the same time. With this resource, I am able to narrow down the list of search results by correlating names and family relationships. If the death is a recent one, the obituary will often let me know where their descendants live currently, bringing them within reach through a white-pages search.

3) The Virginian Pilot Microfilm Archive

The library has the Virginian Pilot on file all the way back to December, 1865! If I have a date, I can pull that microfilm and find the article. They also have computers attached to these microfilm readers so you can save the article in .TIF format. Bring a USB drive, because these particular computers aren't on the network.

4) Library Staff

Unfortunately, I didn't know right away which Virginian Pilot issue I was looking for! The library staff won huge marks here, because I gave them a search term ("Woodstock" for example) and they came back a few days later with not just newspaper articles, but also photos and other archived items from their local history archive. Extremely helpful group of people.

5) Books on local history

A few books I've found helpful; not on Woodstock specifically, but Kempsville in general:

Amish-Mennonites at Kempsville, Virginia: 1900-1970 by Leon Zook & Leroy Miller

Princess Anne County and Virginia Beach by Stephen Mansfield

Virginia Beach: A History of Virginia's Golden Shore by Amy Waters Yarsinske


Zillow is a real-estate site. You can inquire about a particular house through a map interface -- type in an address, see a map, and click on any of the surrounding houses for information. The most useful piece of information I usually get from Zillow is "Year Built" -- allowing me to tell which houses in my neighborhood were built last year, and which were built in the 40's. Like using rock strata or tree rings to track growth, I use this information to track the growth history of the neighborhood.

City has much of the same information that the City Assessor's website has, but one critical new bit of information it relates is the name of the owner for a particular address. This has proven very helpful in discovering who has been in the neighborhood for a long time (and thus narrowing the list of potential interviewees), or confirming addresses of descendants who may still live in the area. The information is a couple years old, unfortunately, but I have still obtained some useful information.

This website may win the award for coolest historical resource. It contains satellite imagery and USGS survey maps from the past, and allows you to overlay present-day street maps for comparison. They have different periods for different areas. For Woodstock, they have satellite imagery from 2003 and 1963 (which predates most of the subdivisions in Woodstock) plus USGS maps from 1948 thru 2000. You can visually track Woodstock's development from the end of World War II to the present day.


Yes, I started the article by saying Google didn't have all the answers. But Google is still an essential resource, so I mention it here.


Monday, November 19, 2012

A History of Woodstock -- PowerPoint

Dear Readers:

It may be bad form to publish incomplete research; but then again, I'm not a historian, so I'm not concerned about loss of credibility with my (non-existent) historian peers. I'm acting on the (perhaps tenuous) assumption that there are others in my neighborhood who are as interested in its history as I am. I'm also looking to put this research to work, to draw the attention of people who actually know what they are talking about.

This Power Point is a presentation of most of my research to date. It presents the history of Woodstock from 1833 to the present as told by property deeds, and the first few personal interviews I've been able to arrange. I do hope to expand this presentation in the coming months and years, so check back periodically.

I've moved the slide show over to Google Slides, so you can view it here.

When the presentation opens in a new window, click "present" in the top right corner to start the slide show.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Old Photos and Tax Returns

I live a tragic irony. I absolutely love old photos, but I am a terrible picture-taker. It's not that I take bad photos; as a communication major, I had some education in shot composition, lighting, and so forth. My problem is, I let moments pass by too easily without taking the time to document them. I am too short-sighted to make the effort to tell people to stand still while I go grab the camera out of the drawer, point and shoot. The iPhone helps a bit, because now I have at least a mediocre camera with me at all times.

This shortcoming of mine causes me to value the shutterbug in others all-the-more. I am immensely grateful to Lacy Tuxhorn of Chesapeake for this particular photo, because it is a photo of my house taken shortly after it was finished in 1964:

I don't think Lacy actually took this photo, but she graciously sent it to me in response to a letter I mailed to her after tracking her down through real-estate records. I really love this, because the little bit of land visible here has changed dramatically since 1964. The original owner built an addition in 1971 that added a living room with a big bay window, and a sunroom that totally enclosed the front porch. The trees visible in the distance are right about where I-64 is now, and Sterling Drive is years away. My next-door neighbor hasn't built his house yet; the open field to the right is now obscured by tall pine trees, thick brush and a brick ranch. The roughly three-quarters of an acre that was the back yard was subdivided in 1996 and now hosts three homes on Sir Michael Dr.

Lacy is the daughter of Kenneth "Paul" and Mildred Charlesworth. Mr. Charlesworth, a World War II veteran and employee at the Ford Motor Plant on Indian River Road purchased this lot in 1962 and began building his dream house. I never knew the Charlesworths, but when I found an instruction booklet for the 1966 Federal Tax Return in the attic during the home inspection (with the address label still attached), I knew I had found the names of the people who first called this place "home" ... and I had to learn more about them, the house, and the neighborhood. That address label on that tax return booklet was the spark that led to everything you will read on this blog.

One day, when I stand in heaven, I hope to hand this moth-eaten booklet to Mr. & Mrs. Charlesworth, have a good laugh, and share with them how much my family enjoyed living in the house they built.

Murder in Woodstock: The Facts Behind The Legend

In the January 2, 1981 issue of The Virginia Beach Beacon, writer Melinda Forbes recounts the story of a murdered man and buried treasure as told by a Woodstock resident. The article evokes all the wonder and speculation one would expect when someone from your own neighborhood is murdered for buried treasure; especially when that buried treasure is never found! This story is made all the more interesting when you consider (a) the story is reported to date back to the 19th century, and (b) it is still being told by neighbors to this very day. I've been pursuing some neighborhood research of my own since moving here; but some details from the newspaper version of the story don't line up with what I have come to learn about the neighborhood. Not wanting to leave loose ends untied, I pursued the case a bit, and have some corrections to the legend.

See the original article here: Page 1, Page 2, Page 3

1) The story is not from the 19th century; it is from the night of December 18, 1930, when James T. Howe, 64, was murdered by Ollie Dawson, 40, and an accomplice in his home on what is now Woodgrove Lane. You might even say the story began on November 29, 1922 when Mr. Howe purchased several acres of land immediately south of Pinehurst Point from John A. Anderson, and built a house. In April of the following year, Mr. Howe purchased an adjoining parcel of land that extended south to the northern edge of Woodstock Cove park. The entire estate is now the Woodstock Cove subdivision.

2) Mr. Howe was from Boston, Massachussetts; not New York. He is descended from a wealthy New Haven, Connecticut family.

3) It is not likely that Mr. Howe had a wife or a daughter. He was described in news articles from the time as "a hunter, trapper, student and semi-recluse" but also a well-educated and wealthy man. A genealogical database search reveals no marriage or descendants. He did not have a will at the time of his death, so his property passed to his nearest relative; his sister, Martha Howe Woods.

4) Mr. Howe probably built only the two room house mentioned in the article; not the larger one for his alleged wife and daughter. A two room house would be sufficient for a single man; and if the wife and daughter are apocryphal, the larger house is probably apocryphal, too. The two room house was expanded by its subsequent owner, Walter Harrison, who purchased the property from Mr. Howe's sister in 1934 and owned the land until 1951. The expanded house is pictured in the Beacon article, but burned down several years after the article was written.

5) The man convicted of the crime, Ollie Dawson (aka Dorson) was executed in Richmond by electric chair on February 13, 1931. It is a bit startling to note how quickly capital punishment was carried out back then, compared to now: less than 60 days from crime to execution.

6) Mr. Dawson confessed to another murder in South Norfolk, but denied shooting Mr. Howe to the very end. He insisted that a partner was the trigger man. He also claimed that he and his partner were enlisted by a white man from Norfolk (Mr. Dawson was black) to murder Howe, and was given heroin to help him along should he have second thoughts about the job.

7) There is support for the claim that Mr. Dawson was found wearing Mr. Howe's hat, but it was not in bed -- it was during the trial. The hat was identified in court by a friend of Howe's, and it contained Howe's partial monogram on the inside. Also in Mr. Dawson's posession at the time of the arrest were Mr. Howe's gun, coat, gloves, and his coin money.

8) Mr. Howe was from Massachussetts, and had family roots in Connecticut, but he never left Kempsville: he is buried at Emmanuel Episcopal Church:

(scroll to the bottom of the web page)

9) None of the newspaper articles from the period mention buried treasure, though Mr. Howe's wealth and personal eccentricity would be consistent with buried treasure. It does make one wonder...


"Mystery of buried treasure in secluded Woodstock" by Melinda Forbes. The Virgnia Beach Beacon, January 2, 1981 pp. 1-3

"Held for death of recluse, blames pal" The Norwalk Hour, December 20, 1930

"Career of crime is revealed by arrest" New Journal and Guide (1916-2003) [Norfolk, Va] December 27, 1930 p. 1

"Dawson's new year may not be so happy at all" New Journal and Guide (1916-2003) [Norfolk, Va] January 3, 1931 p. 1

"Police investigating Dawson's allegations" New Journal and Guide (1916-2003) [Norfolk, Va] February 14, 1931 p. A1

Deed Book 114 page 236, Virginia Beach Circuit Court Building 11/29/1922

Deed Book 115 page 391, Virginia Beach Circuit Court Building 4/28/1923

Deed Book 175 page 25, Virginia Beach Circuit Court Building 4/23/1934